Pitchfork sold, but it hasn't sold out

There's nothing to make you grateful for quality heating like Brooklyn in the winter.

Two years ago, writers and editors at the digital music magazine Pitchfork were tapping out their reviews from a warehouse in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood. A smattering of cheap desks with a router in the corner, the office was a visible reminder of the magazine's indie roots. But it could get pretty cold.

"It was literally below 50 degrees sometimes when we went in there in the morning — and it's hard to type when it's 45 degrees," said Mark Richardson, Pitchfork's Executive Editor. "It was because the radiator wasn't working, and it was in this industrial building that had previously housed furniture makers."

That all changed in 2016, a few months after Condé Nast, the gilded publisher of magazines including Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, bought the digital magazine for an undisclosed sum. Founded as an indie fanzine by Ryan Schreiber from the bedroom of his Minneapolis home in 1996, Pitchfork made the decidedly corporate trek to Manhattan's One World Trade Center last year to join the denizens of traditional New York publishing.

Fingers thus preserved, the editorial staff at Pitchfork found themselves in a high-rise with a new "listening room" and a gaggle of well-heeled company colleagues. Now, more than a year since its acquisition, Pitchfork is holding fast to its indie roots as it grapples with big challenges: Competition from algorithmic music services like Spotify and Pandora that encroach upon its status as a musical tastemaker. Reaffirming its place in the profoundly disrupted industries of music and media. Battling for audience share and revenue from competitors like Rolling Stone, Spin, The Fader and general-interest titles. And navigating the rise of platforms like Google and Facebook.

On that last front, Pitchfork has had some success. Traffic to the digital magazine's big features has increased in the double or triple digits year over year every month since August thanks to the creation of new "best of" lists designed to be read years after they're published. Many people discover these through search engines — on an average month, 36 percent of unique visitors come to the site that way, according to a spokesperson for Condé Nast.

Poynter caught up with Richardson to talk about that strategy, as well as how Pitchfork is navigating its life as a corporate publication. The Q-and-A has been edited for length and clarity.

How long have you been at Pitchfork now?

I started writing for Pitchfork shortly after it was founded. I was a freelance writer for several years — I started writing for Pitchfork in 1998. I was hired full time in 2007, so about 10 years ago.

Wow, it takes a long time to get on staff at Pitchfork.

Yeah, it does. It's funny, when I talk to people about this history of the site, there's just no way to compare the earliest years to anything that came later, except that there's a thread in terms of what we do and a general spirit to it. But obviously in the late 90's — for people that weren't there, it's kind of hard to express what publishing on the web was like in 1998. This was before Google, so there was really no efficient way to find anything at all.

I don't consider myself a music obsessive in the way a lot of your fans probably do, but I've heard Pitchfork described as a cultural tastemaker for super fans. How has that changed — if at all — since Pitchfork was acquired by Condé Nast?

Condé Nast knew we had something successful and worked, and they didn't want us to change the way we do things. The essential part of what we do hasn't changed a lot, except hopefully being able to do it better, having access to better writers. Being able to pay people better for freelance stuff, or whatever. But the things that have changed are probably more external to our main editorial workflow.

In the most fundamental sense, Pitchfork used to be independently owned, and smaller and scrappier and staffed by people who existed outside the New York publishing world. And now we are inside the New York publishing world. So there are ways this is definitely different. We're constantly thinking about, "how do we grow and expand but stay what we are with Pitchfork?"

When I heard about the acquisition, and I heard that it was Condé Nast, it was like: "Hey, they publish a lot of my favorite magazines of all time." Condé Nast's driving thing is quality. I was like, "wow, Pitchfork's going to be a part of this organization that includes The New Yorker, GQ, Vanity Fair." These are magazines that win national magazine awards and publish some of the best features you'll read in a year.

You guys have recently ramped up your production and sharing of evergreen content. What can you tell me about that?

Pitchfork has a lot of content that we publish that people discover long after we publish it. Reviews and criticism are central to what Pitchfork is. And I think maybe the most central component in terms of identity to what Pitchfork is is the review — something that's been there since the very beginning, 20 years ago, when I was doing it.

It's this idea that Pitchfork is a publication that makes distinctions and has a certain taste and is very focused on finding the best music — and is willing to say when it doesn't think that music is good, too.

Reviews are very central to what we do. And our reviews are read for a long time. If we publish a review of a great record, and it's five years later, and people are still finding it, still reading it, still discovering that band through our reviews. And a corollary to that, we always do year-end lists. That's a long tradition in music publishing.

But in the last 10, 12 years, we started doing these larger lists with the best albums and songs of a particular decade. We used to do those once a year. A year and a half ago, I was looking at the top features of the year, and I noticed our best albums of the 70s list was one of our bigger features of 2015. That was a very highly trafficked feature, and it was from 12 years ago. And it's because people on Google want to learn about music.

What's time on site look like for those lists?

The average time on one of these features is over four minutes. That's a long time in the web publishing world. In addition to lots of people finding through, when they get there, they're not just flipping through and noting titles. They're actually taking time to read them, which is pretty cool.

Pitchfork is known for being discerning when it comes to decisions about what to review, and how those reviews are scored. Do you think that exclusivity is important? Why or why not? One recent example: People noticed that Pitchfork reviewed Ryan Adams' cover of "1989," but not the original album by Taylor Swift.

We have to use these 100 monthly review slots to say, "With those 100 reviews, how are we going to define what goes into the Pitchfork tent, and what the Pitchfork universe is?"

It's partly because of the restrictions we have with how many records we can review. The circle is only going to be so big no matter what. If we had a lot more staff, maybe we could do 200 a month or something. But even now, with how much music is out there, even if we doubled it and said we're doing 200 albums per month, that's still five percent of the albums that were released that month.

The Ryan Adams example is kind of a funny one, because we should have reviewed "1989." It's kind of a long story. I really wanted to review that. But a writer fell through, and then it was going to be late. It was this series of errors, why that didn't end up happening. And we hadn't reviewed Taylor Swift previously. Whatever her next record is, we're definitely going to review it. And then I'm sure people will write about it and say, "They're reviewing Taylor Swift now."

Why are you increasing the number of pop albums you review?

It basically comes down to what's going on in pop music on the biggest levels just isn't that separate from independent music anymore. It feels like more part of the same world than it once did. If you go back to the 1980s and look at Madonna and Michael Jackson and things that were happening on these tiny labels back then, it was this vast chasm of completely different worlds of music. It was a completely different press — there were small zines, and then there were big magazines. But now, in part because of the democratization of the internet, things exist on a more even plane than they once did.

Do you worry about competition from Pandora, Spotify or Apple Music, which have their own music recommendation services?

My guess is that the size of the pie of music that's recommended by experts in a formal setting is decreasing. But hopefully, we'll be the dominant player in that world, because that part of our traffic is actually growing. It's an interesting question. It was in the air five years ago, that algorithms were going to help you find music you liked. I always thought of Pitchfork as John Henry going against the machine.

I do feel like the algorithmic part of music recommendation is getting better. The discovery playlist that Spotify uses is remarkably well done. I'm a Spotify user, and when I look at my discovery playlist, there's often things I've never heard before, and I listen to it, and I'm like: "I like this."

I think what helps us in the long run is our level of obsession and how much we think music is important. Algorithmic discovery is going to get better and better, and that's good enough for a lot of people. But I feel like Pitchfork's mission has to do with reaching people who think music is not just something you put on that you enjoy, but it's a way of life is going to carry it through.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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